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Crisis in Syria; NATO Calls for Action; Russian Lawmakers to Visit Congress; Nyad Swims; What Mideast Players Want in Syria; Syrian Activist Supports U.S. Strikes

Aired September 2, 2013 - 12:30   ET




Right now in Washington, Congress fast becoming the epicenter of this battle over what to do about the Syrian crisis.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: President Obama intensifying his efforts to persuade Congress to support his plan for military strikes on Syria.

The president has conference calls, also face-to-face meetings, today with top congressional leaders trying to press his case.

MALVEAUX: Now Russia plans to put its case directly to Congress as well. Russian state-run news agency says that Moscow plans to send a delegation of lawmakers to the United States to meet with congressional members over the issue of Syria.

Now the Russians are strong supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and they've insisted that there's no evidence that the Assad regime used chemical weapons on its own people.

HOLMES: Yeah, they are not convinced.

NATO's leader, meanwhile, weighing in with call for international action against Syria.


ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN, NATO SECRETARY GENERAL: I think there is an agreement that we need a firm international response in order to avert that chemical attacks take place in the future.

It would send a very, I would say, dangerous signal to dictators all over the world if we stand idle by and don't react.


HOLMES: Now many lawmakers, in fact, a lot of people, want more details about the evidence of this chemical weapons attack, in particular, who carried it out and what the evidence is to support that, also what the president plans to do in Syria. One of those people wanting answers is our guest.

MALVEAUX: Democratic Congressman Janice Hahn was at that classified briefing yesterday to hear details about the administration's case against Syria.

So, Congresswoman, thank you for joining us here. Eighty members -- clearly 80 members of Congress came back, actually left -- I understand you took a redeye to get back for that classified briefing.

Why weren't you satisfied about the case that the Obama administration was making for a nuclear -- for a military strike?

REP. JANICE HAHN (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, I was one of the over 200 members that signed onto a letter to President Obama asking him to come to Congress, have the debate and allow us to weigh in on the decision to use military force in Syria.

So I decided to take the redeye back there. I thought it was that important to read the classified documents, to hear the briefing.

And I'm still not convinced at this time that we should be taking the military action in Syria. I need to know more, what --

MALVEAUX: Sure. I'm sorry. I just wanted to where specifically did administration fail in presenting its case?

Did they not make the case that Assad was responsible for the chemical attack or what was it that you're looking for that did not satisfy you?

HAHN: Well, I do think they have a high level of confidence that chemical weapons were used against their own citizens. One hundred percent whether or not it was Assad who ordered that chemical weapons was not there.

But for me, even if we know that chemical weapons have been used, I'm still very concerned about the so-called "limited duration and scope" of what this military strike would be.

A lot of Americans remember us being led into the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and we're still there 10 years later, so I think we're concerned that this is too open ended of what the president is asking Congress to authorize.

HOLMES: Are you worried, too, you know, about who an attack might help? We've got this fractured opposition there, including elements of al Qaeda, al Nusra and others.

If attacks are made that help the opponents of Assad, do they not help -- it's one of those situations that our enemy's enemy could be a worse enemy.

HAHN: It's true. It's a very complicated situation over there.

Also, I was on a conference call this morning with Secretary Kerry and Susan Rice and Defense Secretary Hagel. And this is clearly not about a regime change. This is really only about sending this message --

HOLMES: Then what's the point?

HAHN: -- to Assad.

HOLMES: What's the point?

HAHN: That's what a lot of members of Congress are asking. What's going be the cost to American taxpayers? How long are we going to be in there? What would signify we have a mission accomplished in this situation?

And my big question is, is there another way to hold Assad accountable for this apparent violation of international norms since World War I that chemical weapons are not to be used?

So I'd like to know if another way to hold him -- another way to send a message besides this seemingly unclear military strike that could lead to much more conflict in the Middle East.

How do we know that they're going to respond by attacking our wonderful ally Israel or will they attack America? So I think there's a lot more questions --

MALVEAUX: Sure. Congress is very divided.

HAHN: -- that we want answered.

MALVEAUX: One of your colleagues, Eliot Engel, thinks that Congress is ultimately going to get behind the president on this one.

And here is how he explained his reasoning earlier.


REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D), NEW YORK: I think it's very early for a lot of people. I think people are skeptical because they're hearing questions at home and they are surprised that the president decided to come to Congress.

I think that when all the facts are known and when legislators in both parties see what is best for the United States, I think that the vote will be overwhelmingly yes. It might be close. I said overwhelmingly, but perhaps not so overwhelmingly.

But I do think that a majority will vote yes. To vote no would be a catastrophe. And it's the very first time that many members had evidence presented in front of them. I think they've got to study it, digest it and see what happens.

So I'm not surprised that people are skeptical. I think the president has to make his case to Congress. He has to make his case to the American people. And I think he will.


MALVEAUX: So, Congresswoman, as you stand now, you would not vote for authorization, is that correct?

Is there anything that would make you change your mind or any evidence that the president and some of his administration can present to you to change your mind and authorize military action?

HAHN: I do think there's no reason for us to rush into this right now. Apparently, we still have the inspectors and the scientists who are analyzing the evidence of chemical weapons.

The president said this action could be next week, next month. It doesn't matter.

But I think there's a lot of us that came to Congress to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And is there another way to send a message that the international community is appalled at the use of chemical weapons?

So I will keep looking at the evidence. There's going to be more briefings this week and next week.

And I think for me is the Americans national security at risk immediately? And that's what I'd like to know.

MALVEAUX: All right, a lot of debate still in the days and weeks to come, thank you very much, Congresswoman Hahn, thank you very much for your opinion there and your analysis. Thank you.

HOLMES: All right, now, we were reporting earlier that the good news in the program today and that's Diana Nyad heading from Cuba to the U.S.

And this is recent tape, as in the last few minutes. We just got this in and we wanted to show it to you.

She's only a couple of miles out from shore. This is her -- what is it, fifth attempt?

MALVEAUX: This is her -

HOLMES: Fifth try.

MALVEAUX: -- fifth attempt. Fifth try.

HOLMES: The first was 35 years ago. She's 64-years-old.

MALVEAUX: And we've talked to her numerous times on this show and she's always talking about being your best self, and that she struggles between wanting to try again and then failing, being discouraged.

But then she gets out there and she wants to try again. There's a couple of times when she said, oh, I'm retired, I'm not doing this any more, and then she changes her mind.

HOLMES: She better make it now. She's only a couple of miles out. Come on! She's expected to make landfall about 2:00 p.m., so stick with us right here at CNN. John Zarrella's down there with Dominque Swan (ph), our photographer. They're all waiting for her to get there.

MALVEAUX: So far no big jellyfish or sharks.


MALVEAUX: She's doing pretty well.

HOLMES: All right, we'll keep an eye on it. Yeah. Now you did it. Well done. Yeah.

MALVEAUX: All right.

HOLMES: We'll be right back.


HOLMES: Continuing our coverage of developments in Syria, in particular, what the U.S. will or will not do, we've got a political analyst, Dmitry Babich, on the line from Moscow, works for VOR Radio there.

This news, Dmitry, that the Russians are going to send a delegation of what we understand are lawmakers, M.P.s to Washington.

Who are they, and what weight do they carry, and what do they hope to achieve?

DMITRY BABICH, VOR RADIO POLITICAL ANALYST (via telephone): I think that they want to carry a message that would make the U.S. lawmakers doubt the official version presented by the American administration

Because we Russians have a lot of experience with Islamic fundamentalists in Russia, and there were cases of this kind of false flag attacks.

Obviously in the situation that we have in Syria right now, it was not Assad who was interested in this chemical attack, but certainly the opposition because they could not win on the ground, so the only way for them to win is to have the United States intervene on their side.

HOLMES: So hang on. They are M.P.s. Do they come with the imprimatur of Vladimir Putin?

BABICH (via telephone): I think that most of the deputies who will come to the United States to talk to their colleagues, most of them will share Putin's vision of what's going on, maybe not 100 percent of them.

But the main problem with this intervention, the main problem with the Russian public opinion is that we all remember here in Russia that the American media often said that al Qaeda was capable of using chemical weapons. And now we have al Qaeda or parts of it in Syria fighting Obama. So why is it so impossible, so why is it excluded that these al Qaeda elements would use chemical weapons against the people of Syria?

They don't hesitate to use it against the Americans or against the Russians.

MALVEAUX: And, Dmitry, really quickly here, if you would, are there any lawmakers in the United States who have accepted the invitation to sit down and listen to these Russian lawmakers?

BABICH: Well, as far as I know, there was some interest expressed in the Congress about talking to Russians on that matter. Rand Paul, you know, the Republican lawmaker -


BABICH: Is very much interested, as far as I could understand, in the Russian point of view. So there is some answer on the American side, although, of course, the majority of the congressmen are not sympathetic with the Russian position.

MALVEAUX: All right.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Well, we'll see what happens. Dmitry, thanks for helping us out to understand this. Dmitry Babich there, VOR, in Moscow

MALVEAUX: Such an unusual, very unusual situation.

HOLMES: When - when - when -

MALVEAUX: I've never heard something like that.

HOLMES: I can't remember hearing anything like this in this way. Yes, very unusual.


Syria has some powerful allies, of course, in the region, including, as we mentioned, Russia, as well as Iran. But the country has isolated many of its neighbors. We're going to take a closer look at the Syrian regime's friends and enemies.


MALVEAUX: So what happens in Syria, of course, will have far reaching implications for many other countries. Want to take a look at the friends and enemies of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

You can see, just about all of Europe against him. But more interesting, his largest Middle Eastern enemy is Saudi Arabia. Egypt, on the other hand, trying to establish diplomatic relations with the Assad regime after the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy.

HOLMES: There are a lot of competing interests in that neck of the woods. Nic Robertson joining us now from Amman in Jordan, right in the middle of all of this, not least because of the refugee situation.

Nic, tell us, you know, how Saudi Arabia, and Egypt in particular, which, let's face it, is a bit busy with its own issues, how they're responding to the U.S. mulling over this strike.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Saudi Arabia really threw its efforts to get as strong a resolution as possible at the Arab League on Sunday by sort of trying to corral all the Arab - all the different Arab nations to get a strongly worded resolution. Really it's trying to support the United States and a lot of countries in the region are as well. Jordan, UAE, Bahrain, as well, to name - to name but a few. That resolution from the Arab League, the view of diplomats that I'm talking to here is, that they hope that this gives some political cover, if you will, to President Obama as he goes to Congress to try to get support for strikes in Syria. That absent of a U.N. - absent of a U.N. resolution or support at the U.N., the Arab League are hoping that their resolution is going to help. And that's, perhaps, one of the ways to sort of analyze at a simple level what's going on with the Arab League and how they've said the international community must stop these types of attacks in Syria, Michael.

MALVEAUX: And, Nic, I want you to take a look at this map, because it's really interesting. If you throw this map on top of the regions, you can really see the religious fault lines here. There are those who are supporting Assad, which is in red. They're largely Shia Muslim. They support Assad, who's a member of the Alawite sect, which is part of the Shia. And then in yellow, you have the largely Sunni Muslim population in support of the Syrian rebels, who are largely Sunni Muslim. How does this complicate the whole situation?

ROBERTSON: Well, what it does is, it tells you that potentially if things were to spiral really out of control, you could end up with a wider sectarian conflict. Syria was one of those places in the Middle East where Christians, Alawites, Shia, Sunni, Drews (ph), to name just but a few of the later (ph) groups inside Syria, live side by side. That is -- no one things that scenario is going to last anymore. It is a sectarian battle over the border inside Syria and the ramifications are, if you have Sunni-Saudi Arabia leading other Sunni Arab states, that you can get a backlash sectarian fault line, as you pointed out, Sunni/Shite. Syria could really be the spark (ph) for that.


HOLMES: Yes. Already no love lost between the Saudis and the Iranians as well. Good to have you in the region there, Nic.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Nic.

HOLMES: Nic Robertson in Amman.

Oh, my.

MALVEAUX: Well, he has seen the brutality of the Assad regime up close. Next, we're actually going to be speaking with a Syrian activist who is now living in the United States. We're going to talk about his experience and whether or not he believes it is the right thing to do for the U.S. to get involved.


MALVEAUX: So, what do the Syrian people want to happen in their own country? Do they actually want the United States to get involved? And if the Assad regime is removed from power, what is next?

HOLMES: that is the big question. Well, Ahed al Hendi is a U.S. based activist who is connected to activists and rebels inside the country.

Now, Ahed, as a student you say you were imprisoned, tortured by Syrian authorities just for establishing a secular student organization against the regime. I'm curious what you think about the notion of the U.S. striking Syrian targets. And if it's as limited and pinpoint as the U.S. is saying, then what would it achieve? Would Assad even care?

AHED AL HENDI, SYRIAN ACTIVIST AND DISSIDENT: Yes, of course I think Assad would care. Now, he has been killing the Syrian people for more than two years and a half and nobody is stopping him. I mean just yesterday air strike bombarded like civilian residential areas and I mean like he's not caring (ph) to anyone. He thinks that the world is not taking any serious steps to stopping him from doing his criminal acts. So, of course, I mean, if Assad would see a great power like the United States of America taking a step and, I mean, doing a strike on some of the regime facilities inside the country, I'm pretty sure that he would be - he'd stop doing that.

MALVEAUX: And, Ahed, I'm sure you have many people that you've left behind, your experience in Syria, whether it's family or friends and that there's great concern. Perhaps you'd even like to go back. But what would happen if Assad is overturned, the rebels win and there are all these different elements within that group, potentially al Qaeda and others, who would make mischief? I mean does that concern you at all that you wouldn't be able to really have any stability in your country after Assad?

AL HENDI: Well, of course I - this concern me. I came from a Christian family and it concern me to see elements like al Qaeda and Islamic extremists inside Syria. But, I mean, let's think, I mean, like, who empowered these groups inside the country? At the beginning, al Qaeda used to be recruited inside Syria to go and fight in Iraq in the daylight. I was student in Damascus University back then and they used to have offices in public to take people to go and fight and fight in Iraq to kill the American troops inside Iraq. Now the absence of any wisdom (ph) and support inside the country, it give a golden opportunity for groups like al Qaeda and other like affiliated - other groups that are affiliated with al Qaeda to come to Syria. And they have millions of money coming from like people in the gulf country. So we are so concerned.

But I think if there would be an American absence or a western absence in Syria, I think the situation would be worse and al Qaeda would take refuge there and Syria would going to be like a failed state where like training camps for al Qaeda and other Islamic group to launch their operation against neighboring country even, not only inside Syria.

HOLMES: Yes, most of the rebels are Sunni. And across the border in Iraq, you have a Sunni insurgency of sorts. And we're already seeing fighters crossing the border. How worried are you about a regional conflict?

AL HENDI: OK. I was in Turkey two days ago and I met with some of the rebel commanders. I mean they are colonels (ph). And all of them are secular. They were engaged in some battles against al Qaeda, groups inside the country. But they had one complaint. I mean they said we are getting no support. The only support they are getting is nonlethal support. I saw some of the American assistant (ph) to them was MRI (ph) like some protein bars and other like food. And they told me, we can't fight al Qaeda with this stuff.

I mean the Syrian people, they don't like al Qaeda. I mean Syria's very diverse. Christians and Drews (ph) and Alawites, they live in all over Syria, they live peacefully and al Qaeda is like very strange to the Syrian people. I mean, so they are not welcome in the country. So we are calling on the western country and on the United States, of course, to support us to fight al-Assad and to fight al Qaeda at the same time.

HOLMES: A lot of people worried about the cohesion of the opposition. We'll have to leave it there, though. Ahed al Hendi, thanks so much. Good to talk to you.

AL HENDI: Thank you.

HOLMES: All right, that will do it for me. Thanks for watching AROUND THE WORLD. Good to be back with you.

MALVEAUX: Good to have you back.

HOLMES: You carry on.

MALVEAUX: OK. We'll see you tomorrow.

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